(Originally published in BIODYNAMICS #214, November/December 1997)
you become interested in biodynamic agriculture, you do not get very
far into it before you are confronted with Rudolf Steiner. The sheer
productivity of Steiner's life is somewhat daunting: over 6,000
lectures, dozens of books, and innovative approaches to education, the
arts, medicine, working with people with special needs. An extensive
secondary literature exists, and important work has been done, in each
of these fields. And if this were not enough, Steiner provided a
methodology for spiritual development.
As Stewart Easton wrote:
Steiner had been nothing but a philosopher, or theologian, or educator,
or authority on Goethe, or agricultural expert, or architect, or
knowledgeable in medicinal plants, or dramatist, or gifted artistic
innovator, inventor of eurythmy, an age that respects specialization
would have reserved a special niche for him. But Steiner was all these
things at the same time." (Easton, 9)
By now you may be
thinking, "But I just want to do gardening. Tell me how to do that."
Then you find out that Steiner developed a specialized language with
which to describe his ideas, and his ideas and the techniques which
have arisen from them are based on his spiritual experiences.
Confronted with all this, you are quite justified in saying, "This is a
In these articles, I will provide a frame of
reference for understanding biodynamics. More particularly, I will
attempt to make the whole nexus of concepts that underlie biodynamics
more accessible to those practitioners who seek to go beyond the
practice into a deeper understanding, but who for various reasons
cannot devote the time it takes to explore in detail the work of
Steiner and the people who have followed him. Each article will contain
a list of references for further reading. This first article places
Steiner's life and work in a larger historical context.
* * *
someone born in the last quarter of this century, the time and place of
Rudolf Steiner's birth must seem almost entirely alien to their own
times. He was born in 1861 in Kraljevec, now in the newly independent
nation of Slovenia, formerly in Yugoslavia. When Steiner was born, this
region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Johann, was
station master on the Southern Austrian Railroad, which had just been
constructed between Vienna and Trieste on the Adriatic Sea. His parents
thus lived far from their place of birth in Austria. His mother,
Franziska, had been a maid in service to Count Hoyos and his father
descended from a long line of gamekeepers for the Hoyos family. When
they wanted to marry, the Count refused permission, so they left their
ancestral positions and sought employment elsewhere.
points us to a key for Steiner's childhood. On the one hand, the areas
in which he grew up were little changed from the Middle Ages. On the
other, he was exposed to the most modern influences. As he said, If
anyone were to prepare himself for a very modern life, for one
surrounded by the most modern achievements of the present, and if he
were to choose to this end the corresponding conditions of life for his
present incarnation, I think he would have had to make the choice which
Rudolf Steiner made for his present incarnation. For he was surrounded
from the beginning by the most recent achievements of civilization, by
railway and telegraph, from the first hour of his earthly life. Yet he
also found himself in the mountains, among peasants whose way of life
stretched unchanged into past centuries. "[These mountains] can leave a
deep mark on the soul of a child... in the distance I could see the
Styrian mountains glistening in the glorious sunshine and frequently
covered by the most wonderful snowfields... one of the most beautiful
sites in Austria."
The peasants still maintained somewhat a
clairvoyant perception of nature, and their cultural life was
intimately related to the changing of the seasons and the tasks linked
to what Steiner later called "the breathing of the earth." The young
boy had a pronounced clairvoyant ability, but he soon learned that he
could not speak of his experiences with anyone because they would
ridicule his comments as superstitious.
As Henry Barnes writes
in a new biography, "That the boy lived in two worlds of experience is
of decisive significance: an inner world of supersensible perception
and an outer world of everyday experience." For Rudolf as a child the
surrounding nature, which he loved, was alive with elemental beings.
From an early age he was also able to follow the further journeys of
those who had died. The world of nonphysical perception was more real
to him than the one that spoke through his bodily senses, and he
assumed that this was also true for others.
He soon learned
that this was not the case, however, for when he spoke matter-of-factly
of these experiences, he was met with disbelief, embarrassment, and
often ridicule. The boy thus learned to keep silent about his inner
perceptions. This "keeping silent" was a characteristic of Rudolf
Steiner's life well into his adult years, when... he finally met
contemporaries who wanted to share this reality of his experience.
Johann Steiner, perhaps befitting someone who
consciously left his ancestral homeland, was a free-thinker, interested
in the current ideas of the day. In Europe, promising students at the
age of 11 had to select either a technical-scientific path of study,
leading to a scientific institute, or a classical humanistic course,
leading to a university training. Johann chose the scientific course of
study for his son.
Inexorably, the industrialized nations were
shifting from agrarian to industrial economies and the population moved
from rural to urban life. Steiner's family moved along the railroad
ever closer to Vienna, one of the cultural centers of the world. Each
move provided Steiner with a better educational opportunity, and closer
to the modern world. By the time he was 18, in 1879, the Steiner family
moved near Vienna, so that Rudolf could attend the Technical Institute,
then one of the foremost scientific universities in the world. It was
typical of Steiner, however, that these studies did not occupy all his
time, for he attended nearly as many courses at the University of
Vienna as he did at the Institute.
To summarize, we can find a
number of interesting parallels in Steiner's early life. He grew up in
quite rural areas, but the railroad station and telegraph kept the most
modern people and events close to his consciousness. He had a richly
clairvoyant life which he could not share with others. His mind
wrestled with the deepest philosophical questions and he read such
philosophers as Kant while in high school, but his outer course of
study was science and technology. By the time he entered his collegiate
years, he was interested in finding a way to bridge the deep chasm
between the worlds of inner and outer perception, between the
conceptual framework of the sciences, philosophy, and the doctrines of
* * *
It was a blessing that at this time,
he met a most unusual man on his daily train rides into Vienna. Felix
Kogutski was a licensed herb-gatherer who sold medicinal plants to the
city's pharmacies and the botanical department at the medical school.
Many readers will know that most medicines at that time were
plant-based. At last, here was a man with whom Steiner could speak of
his spiritual experiences to one who seemed "a soul from ancient
times," and a last representative of "an instinctive clairvoyance of an
earlier era. " He wrote:
It was possible to talk about the
spiritual world with him as with someone who had his own experiences of
it.... He revealed himself as though he, as a personality, were only
the voice for a spiritual content that wished to speak out of hidden
worlds. When you were with him you could get deep glimpses into the
secrets of nature.... According to the usual conception of "learning,"
you would have to say that you couldn't "learn" anything from this man.
But if you yourself were able to perceive a spiritual world, you could
obtain very deep glimpses into this world through someone who had a
firm footing there. Moreover, anything fantastic or illusory was
utterly foreign to the man. (The Course of My Life, 42-43)
Kogutski seems to me sort of a "patron saint" of biodynamics. His
appearance in Steiner's life led to important developments, as if he
were a signpost from an ancient spirituality to the roots of a new
approach to the spirit, just as Felix himself brought his medicinal
plants from the country into one of the world's leading cities.
a student, Steiner became the editor of the scientific writings of J.
W. von Goethe, one of the world's greatest poets, but increasing known
as a pioneer in the organic sciences. It was in Goethe's work that he
found a link upon which he could begin to build his own approach. It is
crucial for us to understand that Steiner was not content with having
his own clairvoyant experiences. He felt "a burning need which became a
dominant theme of his first 30 years" to be able to find the unseen
spiritual world within the seen physical world, and to be able to lead
others on this path. In all the writing and speaking that he did until
1900, he sought to grapple with nature "in order to acquire a point of
view with regard to the world of spirit which confronted me in
self-evident perception. I said to myself that it is possible after all
to come to and understanding of the experience of the spiritual world
through one's soul only if one's process of thinking has reached such a
form that it can attain to the reality of being which is in the
phenomena of nature." (The Course of My Life, 24; my emphasis)
cannot go farther here into the philosophical underpinnings of
Steiner's work, but I think it is most important to note the emphasis
he placed on increasing the power of thinking as a tool for spiritual
development because it runs quite counter to many approaches to
spiritual development. But anyone who works seriously out of
biodynamics for a while will notice that unusual demands are placed
upon one's inner life. For example, through physical chemistry we can
understand the role that nitrogen plays in plant growth. But Steiner
rarely refers to that; rather, he speaks of the nitrogen process. Can
you visualize the growth of a plant over and again until you can move
from the static picture of plant growth of orthodox botany so that your
imagination can follow a plant from seed to seed stage in a living way?
And in doing so, can you visualize clearly how nitrogen works in this
unfolding? Can you follow nitrogen in its path from the atmosphere into
the soil and plant and back again? Can you do the same for potassium,
silica, sulfur, or calcium? It is this flexibility and strengthening of
our soul that Steiner thought was required biodynamic work. That he
provided a path for the development of such new soul qualities may be
his greatest contribution to humanity.
* * *
leads us to an additional consideration, which is the cultural
dimension of biodynamics. I have tried to show that the world in which
Rudolf Steiner lived is quite different than our world, but it is
similar in some ways, too. One similarity is that older cultures
continue to fall under the sway of newer ones. Many readers will
confess to computer phobia. Even e-mail is beyond you, much less
desktop publishing, research on the Internet, web page production, and
even the most simple programming. But computers represent a much
different picture for your children. They take to it, and other such
esoteric matters as programming your VCR, with the same ease with which
you worked on your car as a teenager, adjust a cultivator, or overhaul
a diesel tractor engine today. As I write, there are over 90,000 jobs
available for "computer nerds," and only 20,000 people to fill them.
Yet daily in Texas where I live, we see hundreds of immigrants from
Mexico and further south coming into this country with little more than
an elementary school education. And this is only one example of an
older and a newer culture meeting. One group thrives, another group
falls by the wayside, becomes technologically "superfluous."
Steiner's time, a similar situation existed. The rural peasantry into
which he was born virtually vanished in his lifetime, to become the
industrial proletariat the industrial working class. The old culture
was based on nature; the new culture on the machine and industrial
processes. Realizing that these people were ripped out of an ancient
culture and placed into a new life, he readily agreed when he was asked
in the 1890's, to teach at the Worker's College in Berlin which was
sponsored by the Socialist Worker's Party. He taught for seven years
there and presented two subjects: public speaking and history.
little thought may tell you why he chose these subjects. Here were
people whose culture in no way related to the present situation. The
middle class had commercial and educational opportunities and the upper
class had many advantages it still enjoys today, but the workers were
bereft no training, no education, and no culture to sustain them.
Steiner taught them public speaking so that they would learn to express
themselves verbally, which also requires learning to think in an
orderly and sequential manner. Without this ability, the workers were
totally at the mercy of propagandists and managers. That our schools do
not teach people to think or speak clearly today leaves most of us at
the same disadvantage! He taught history because if we do not know
where we have come from, we cannot see where we are going and we do not
know who we are. Here are two absolutely basic human needs: to be able
to ask, "Who am I?" and to express myself to others. Rudolf Steiner's
tenure at the Worker's College ended when party officials realized that
he based his history lectures on the sanctity of the human
individuality and its evolution and not on fostering class
consciousness, and that teaching the workers to think clearly stood in
the way of the "dictatorship of the proletariat," a term much loved by
Marxists, which means that you can stir up ignorant workers to do
whatever you want them to do, but you (meaning party officials) remain
firmly in control. His courses there were very popular and he sometimes
spoke to several thousand people as special events.
* * *
1902, when he turned forty-two, Rudolf Steiner had enjoyed a successful
career as an editor of important editions of the work of Goethe and
Nietzsche, as a philosopher, a critic, and editor of a prestigious
cultural magazine, and he had met many of the important figures of the
time. But he had felt it necessary to remain silent about his inner
life, his clairvoyant abilities, and what he considered to be his
mission in life, which was to contribute to a cultural renewal which
would bring art, science, and religion together in a new way. In that
year, he was invited for the first time to speak of spiritual matters.
In a very brief time, his abilities were recognized by many people. He
began to publish books on spiritual topics, he was invited to lecture
throughout Europe, and soon he was the leader of a spiritual movement.
All the things he is known for today were established in the remaining
twenty-three years of his life.
For biodynamic practitioners,
it is helpful to look back at his childhood and early career to pick up
the theme of cultural renewal. Renewal often implies destruction,
doesn't it? An annual plant, for example, begins to die during seed
formation. I don't think it is too farfetched to think of Biodynamics
as a renewal of the ancient peasants' culture, of a blending of the
best of an older consciousness and a newer one.
Toward the end
of his life when he gave the agricultural lectures, Steiner looked back
to the peasants. In a discussion after they had stirred the horn manure
I grew up entirely out of the peasant folk, and in my
spirit I have always remained there.... I myself planted potatoes, and
though I did not breed horses, at any rate I helped to breed pigs. And
in the farmyard... I lent a hand with the cattle. These things were
absolutely near my life for a long time; I took part in them most
actively. Thus I am at any rate lovingly devoted to it, for I grew up
in the midst of it myself, and there is far more of that in me than the
little bit of 'stirring the manure' just now. Therefore I beg you to
consider me as the small peasant farmer who a conceived a real love for
farming; one who remembers his small peasant farm and who thereby,
perhaps, can understand what lives in the peasantry, in the farmers and
yeomen of our agricultural life.
For I have always had the
opinion... that [the peasants'] alleged stupidity or foolishness is
wisdom before God, that is to say, before the Spirit. I have always
considered what the peasants and farmers thought about their things far
wiser than what the scientists were thinking.... I have always been
glad when I could listen to such things, for I have always found them
extremely wise, while, as to science in its practical effects and
conduct I have found it very stupid. This is what we at Dornach are
striving for, and this will make our science wise will make it wise
precisely through the so-called 'peasant stupidity.' We shall take
pains at Dornach to carry a little of this peasant stupidity into our
science, then this stupidity will become Wisdom before God.
you look into these lectures, there is a stunning description of how
the oldtime farmers walked across their fields and sensed, through the
nitrogen, the conditions there. It was as if the nitrogen was a
connection between the farmer and the elemental beings of the earth,
air, water, and warmth of the soil, plants and animals. We can ask
ourselves how far from this older consciousness we are today. As
Steiner put it:
When I was a young man I had the idea to write a
kind of "peasants' philosophy," setting down the conceptual life of the
peasants in all the things that touch their lives. It might have been
very beautiful. An absolute wisdom would have emerged, the statement of
the Count [Count Keyserlinck, who hosted the conference] that peasants
are stupid, would have been refuted. A subtle wisdom would have emerged
a philosophy contained in the very formation of the words. One marvels
to see how much the peasant knows of what is going on in Nature. Today,
however, it would no longer be possible to write a peasants'
philosophy. These things have been almost entirely lost. It is no
longer as it was forty or fifty years ago. Yet it was wonderfully
significant; you could learn far more from peasants than from the
University.... It was a kind of cultural philosophy.
often thought that was a scathing indictment of university learning
from one who had seen the best universities in the world! Yet, to go
back to an earlier stage of development was never a goal for Rudolf
Steiner. Always he sought to develop, out of an older form, something
entirely new. He did not contemplate a return to the feudal system out
of which the peasantry came, nor did he wish to ignore the gains of
agricultural science or a scientific education. He wanted farmers,
scientists, and commercial interests to form new relationships, and for
farmers to develop new faculties of consciousness. Perhaps most
importantly, he did not think that food grown on increasingly
impoverished soil could provide the inner sustenance that is needed for
Perhaps more than any other realm of
activity, agriculture has been torn forcefully and irrevocably from the
culture from which it originally came. But it is, in another way, only
one of many activities upon which our lives depend that now exist in a
manner that is light-years apart from the cultural matrix in which they
originated. It was the life work of Rudolf Steiner to provide the roots
of a totally new culture. I have always felt it to be tragic that so
revolutionary a figure has been so obscured by the sheer quantity of
information he produced! It's sort of like side-dressing a young plant
but covering it with the manure. In the correct amount the
side-dressing would be life-enhancing, but too much can smother the
Some of the most learned, dedicated individuals in the
world have spent nearly a century trying to understand, practice, and
develop further Steiner's immense contributions. Yet the message behind
them is quite simple and can be found in the Book of Revelation:
"Behold, I make all things new." That was Rudolf Steiner's purpose in
all that he did, to plant the seeds, provide the foundation, for a
cultural renewal. He knew, perhaps better than we do, that the renewal
that he called for, that he worked for so desperately, would require a
very different basis of nutrition than can ever be achieved through
chemical farming. So it all demands new approaches: to science, to our
inner development, to our relation to nature, to our handling of
manures and composts, to creating preparations that but for our
efforts, would never exist naturally.
That's who Rudolf Steiner was: a prophet of renewal.
Barnes, Henry. A Life for the Spirit: Rudolf Steiner in the Crosscurrents of Our Time. (Anthroposophic Press, 1997).
book is the most accessible general biography available today. It is
beautifully and lovingly written by a master historian.
Easton, Stewart. Rudolf Steiner: Herald of A New Epoch. (Anthroposophic Press, 1982).
An excellent work.
Steiner, Rudolf. Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture. (Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, 1993).
__________. The Course of My Life. (Anthroposophic Press, 1951).
with names of people, most of whom you may not know, with sharply drawn
portraits of places and encounters with people, and with amazing
glimpses into this remarkable man's soul as it developed from early
childhood until 1907.